Should I buy a laptop, desktop, or tablet?

Grandpa’s Guide to IT

My first answer to this question is always, “whatever you like” and do my best to walk away, or pretend that I am busy. But if the poor misguided soul asking me this question fails to take that answer as the dismissal it is and follows up with “No, seriously, which one should I buy?” I then accept that our friendship is going to come to an end, possibly right now.

Nobody in IT likes answering that question. Anybody who does gets a commission per sale. Every choice has its consequences and as far as you are concerned, all of those consequences will be my fault.

But I understand the question. Really, I do. If you want to drill a 3/8” hole, you will buy a 3/8” drill. You go to Home Depot and are faced with choices like carbon steel, carbide, or peppermint flavored drills, you might want to talk to someone to see if the peppermint flavored drill is ok for the job you have planned. (Easier to justify that purchase with the wife, I mean, you let her buy all the damn scented candles she wants, even though you shower daily and could not possibly be part of the problem she is desperately trying to cover up by burning candy in your house. A peppermint flavored drill shows that you are trying to enter the spirit of her weird hobby. Note: at the time of this writing, peppermint flavored drills do not exist. But they wouldn’t be impossible to make. Just kinda pointless, and maybe a little fabulous.)

So your shop buddy starts asking questions about the material you are drilling through. Then he will ask you a question or two about why you want to drill this hole. Are you going to be putting a bearing in it? Will you need to use the bore itself to carry a moving part? How accurate does it need to be? Because drills wander a bit and if you need accuracy you might want to buy a smaller drill and a 3/8” reamer. The material and drill press you already have will help determine if you need to drill a pilot hole. So now, you are looking at buying at least 2 drills and a reamer for a 3/8” hole. Oh, you are just going to hammer a dowel pin in a plank of pine? Yeah, yeah, fine. Get the steel drill, don’t waste money on carbide and try to get the vanilla flavored one. My wife loves that one.

And you are ok with this long exchange. It does not bother you to answer questions from an expert or someone who claims to be an expert to help you figure out the best way to do the job.

But if I relent and actually try to give you good advice, I will ask you what you intend to do with your new computing device. Without exception, every one of you will look at me with a mixture of resentment, puzzlement and frustration and some of you might even start to waffle on about computery, internetty things like email or ‘the facebook’, or something evasive like that.
This tells me that you heard about all the free porn out there and do not want to admit to me that you are damned curious about all the weird, wild stuff that your buddy at the pub keeps telling you about. Or you are hoping that the device itself will contain enough easy to use tools for you to puzzle out how to do a lot of those cool things that you know are out there. (which is a bit like buying a 50 dollar “automotive” tool set, thinking you now have the expertise and tools to save thousands a year on auto repair.)

If I am in the right mood, I will show you how to get porn on that phone you bought last year but never bothered to learn how to use. I might even show you where to buy a waterproof case so you can safely take that phone into the shower with you so you can enjoy your twisted sexual fantasies in their natural environment. This will save you from having to buy yet another box that you will never find the time to learn how to use to its full potential.

You can get the internet on any of them, so I will re-state my original position and tell you to buy whatever you like. The way the marketers, engineers and other people who believe they are important waffle on about wearable computing, you will be able to get free porn on your socks within the next ten years. This will save a lot of time. However, if the future involves having a toe amputated due to frostbite because you let your cable bill go into collections, I might give the future a miss. But the point is, if all you are concerned with is the internet, then the device doesn’t matter. Buy what you like.
But I will break it down for you.
A tablet basically started out as a way to get all those nifty little things on your phone that were giving you eyestrain onto a slightly larger surface while still making it damn near impossible to do anything that involves storage, copying files, or otherwise enjoying media that you paid for before you bought the damn thing. Its primary job is to lock you into buying all of your old movies and music all over again in a format that you cannot, under any circumstances, use on any other device. (you aren’t buying a copy of a song, you are buying an experience, and all experiences are transient, soon gone and just a part of your memories. Until they find a way to sell it to you again.) And of course, no one wanted to take the gamble on people feeling silly holding up a big plastic slab to their ears, so they removed the phone part of this much bigger phone thingy. I think of these as toys and toys only. They are for watching things, reading things, playing simple games, emailing insults to people you hope will have the sense to stop considering you a friend, and preventing your boat from drifting away if you just want to sit and fish for a while. But it is a great internet starter kit and will be the easiest way to get familiar with the Weird Wild Web.

A laptop combines all the disadvantages with none of the advantages of a desktop. Other than the fact that it can be used in home defense as a blunt instrument or in anchoring your boat much more effectively than a tablet can, laptops are the middle of the convenience spectrum. In fact, we are not allowed to refer to them as laptops any longer, they generally operate at temperatures far too high for comfortable or safe use on your lap. (Unless you are a mature woman who hasn’t felt warm since the 70s or you are the kind of guy who wears an asbestos kilt just to get in fights with the hazmat guys.) Laptops will do pretty much everything desktops will do, but generally not as efficiently or as quickly. However, you still need to be careful and plan this purchase around gear you already own or want to own in the future. There is a trend in laptop design for slim and sexy. Most models will be missing ports that you thought every computer came with. So the HDMI port is lovely and you can use the laptop to power your TV, but bringing your friends over for the game only to find that your new laptop is missing the VGA port you need for the projector is a bit disappointing. Not a disaster, but your ideal for the evening came up against crushing reality. You could still perform, no one complained, but you could not do quite as much as you hoped to do. In my experience, this is exactly what owning a laptop feels like.

A desktop is a big ugly slab of holes, fans, lights, cables, and cat hair. It is the solid workhorse of home computing and usually expandable. The design is mostly modular. If something stops working, crack it open and slap a new component in. If it doesn’t do what you want it to, find the thingy that does and stuff it in somewhere. Problem is they tend to be the size of some apartment fridges and your desktop workstation often becomes the centerpiece of rather a lot of dedicated, unwanted furniture. You need room for it and you can’t drag it over to the kitchen table like a laptop, or curl up with it on the couch like a tablet. But, you can do everything that you can’t do with a tablet or laptop. (which is steal hundreds of movies, and be verbally abused in slick looking online first person shooter games by racist, homophobic eight-year-olds. Oh, and video editing, photograph abuse, CAD/CAM stuff, big excel spreadsheets or other worky-type things that require a little horsepower)

Don’t buy into the hype that the desktop PC is dead. Yes, all the big players are moaning and groaning about how sales are down. But the truth is, sales are down. Desktop PCs are lasting longer now and people are replacing them much less often.  (That and a lot of people are waiting for windows 8 to die before investing considerably into a new desktop.)

What I find to be very common is that most households own at least one of each. There will be a nook set aside for the desktop that collects dust because no one really wants to work at home. (The important thing is to know that they can.) There will be a laptop, typically in the kitchen or on the dining room table for breakfast and coffee browsing and at least one tablet tossed casually somewhere in the living room. Its primary purpose is to be destroyed by a child or used by one of the adults to avoid the awful TV show that the other insists on watching. Believe me, sitting through another episode of “Real Housewives Buy Wedding Dresses to Keep up With the Kardashians,” will force you into learning everything there is to know about that tablet as you try desperately to ignore the horror unfolding on the television screen.

So, if we have gotten this far in the discussion, I will tell you that it is in your best interests to buy all three. You are going to end up needing them eventually. Save time and calls to people like me and have every option available to discover as you end up requiring those options.

And here is the real lesson: in the beginning, you asked an IT guy a question. You were given an answer that was “good enough”. You chose not to accept that perfectly reasonable answer and push for a more detailed answer, specific to your case. Now, it has been explained to you that completely satisfying you will now require at least three times as many devices at probably 10 times the cost of what you had your heart set on when you asked the question in the first place.

Do you see the lesson here? Good, because at no point in this progression did the IT guy give you bad advice. But at no point did the IT guy give you the advice you wanted. This will completely cover anything you want to do with home computing until they invent wireless underwear that will send photos of your privates to anyone with a cell phone in a thousand mile radius every time you stick your finger in your ear.
Buy whatever you like.